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Illustration of Electric Chair

Can your race be used against you when it comes to punishment? For minorities in Harris County, Texas, the answer is yes. The proof? A new study by University of Maryland Professor Raymond Paternoster. His research reveals that among the 504 capital cases he sampled in the county between 1992 and 1999, prosecutors were more than 3X as likely to seek death against black defendants than white defendants.

The troubling case of death row inmate Duane Buck (included in the study) is proof of the racial bias that has tainted capital sentencing in Harris County. During Mr. Buck’s 1997 capital sentencing hearing, the trial prosecutor elicited testimony from “expert” psychologist, Dr. Walter Quijuano, who claimed that Mr. Buck posed a future danger because he is black. The prosecutor relied on this race-based testimony during his closing arguments to urge the jury to grant a death sentence.  Consequently, the jury believed that Mr. Buck would be a future danger and sentenced him to death.

In 2000, then Texas Attorney General (now U.S. Senator), John Cornyn, admitted that Mr. Buck, and six other defendants, were entitled to new sentencing hearings because race-based testimony was presented in their original hearings. “It is inappropriate to allow race to be considered as a factor in our criminal justice system,” Cornyn declared. Texas made good on its promise to all of the defendants by granting them new sentencing hearings free of racially charged testimony – all except for Mr. Buck.

U.S. Supreme Court Justices Sotomayor and Kagan also agree that Mr. Buck’s case merits further review because “our criminal justice system should not tolerate [a death sentence] marred by racial overtones.”

This is precisely what Mr. Buck’s attorneys are arguing in an effort to secure a new sentencing hearing for their client, free of the racial bias that tainted his original sentencing. The habeas petition they filed on March 13 can be found on the NAACP Legal Defense & Educational Fund page here.

No one is arguing that Mr. Buck deserves to be set free. He should be punished for his crime – but no one should be executed based on the color of their skin.

Even one of the prosecuting attorneys at the original sentencing hearing, Linda Geffin, and one of the surviving victims, Phyllis Taylor, agree that Mr. Buck deserves a new sentencing hearing, free of inappropriate considerations of race. “No individual should be executed without being afforded a fair trial, untainted by considerations of race,” says Ms. Geffin. Phyllis Taylor also explains why she thinks Duane should not be executed in an interview here.

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Such racially charged testimony should never be allowed into a court of law, least of all when the ultimate punishment – death – is on the line. Mr. Buck’s death sentence is an unconstitutional product of racial discrimination. The Texas courts should grant Mr. Buck’s appeal and allow him a new, fair sentencing hearing free of racial bias.

Photo from El Bibliomata licensed under Creative Commons